Welcome to my blog. Hope you’ll enjoy reading my stories and looking at the information in my Writers Club! I look forward to your comments and any questions.
In my parents’ attic there’s a black and white photo of my maternal grandparents, Inabel and Carl, from the days when they were “courting.” It was taken in the mid 1920s a few years before the Dust Bowl nearly destroyed the agriculture and prairies of Oklahoma and most of the Midwest.
I’ve always loved the photo because it showed how beautiful Inabel, my “Mema,” was at the age of 18, with her bobbed light brown hair and chiffon dress, and the dashing profile of my “Pa” in his vested suit. They’re leaning against a car with running boards, and in their faces I see two young adults in love, both of them smiling with a sense of shyness and mischief at the same time.
As a writer I also love the photo because of the story behind it – which is that it was taken not too long after young Carl, a manager-trainee at the town bank, was sent out to collect a debt from a farmer’s daughter who had written a couple of checks that slightly exceeded the amount of money in her account. As the story goes, Carl and Inabel were married within just a few months after that image was captured in front of her family’s farmhouse.
Today, after reading Lou Bayard’s Lucky Strikes, I have the opportunity to let the story of Inabel and Carl meander to different places in my mind. I’m imagining them on a long road trip to Washington, D.C. a few years later, taking the scenic route through Warren County in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Chances are pretty good they would have passed by a tiny store fronted by two gas pumps, within sight of a frame house built during the Civil War, all of it called to their attention by a sign on a tombstone reading BRENDA’S OASIS.
If they passed by at a certain time in the station’s history, they would have been met at the pump by nine-year-old Earle Hoyle, and if they had moseyed inside the store they would have been encouraged to buy film and an updated road map and a few pieces of candy for the rest of the trip.
What’s especially important to my imagining of their journey, however, is what would have happened if they’d needed someone to take a look under their hood.
In that case they would have been tended to by 14 year old Amelia – who went by “Melia” – Hoyle. Based on certain events that happen in the later chapters of this book I’m sure Melia was a pretty girl despite the stains that would have been on her clothes after hours of changing oil, replacing fan belts, and diagnosing the causes of rattles and shakes with the finesse of an expert mechanic even though she’s mostly self-taught.
From the very first page of this story, Melia is vividly and entertainingly true to life as a teenager in rural Virginia during the Depression. In chapter one, for example, she’s at her mother’s bedside when she takes her last breath. Here, she tells us:
“I could feel, beneath the hair, her whole scalp crackling. I think now maybe that was her soul flying off. I’m nearly sure of it because when I looked at the rest of her – her face, her hands – her bare white legs – her eyes – she was empty.”
“Gone. That’s what they always say about dead folks when they don’t want to say dead. But that’s how it was with Mama. Whatever’d been there a second ago, making her eyelids twitch and her breath hitch . . . well, somehow or other it’d slipped away when I wasn’t looking. Gone.”
That’s just a glimpse of the way Melia tells this story, with beautiful language in a narrative that perfectly evokes the poverty and rural town attitudes of the time – and in a voice that sounds completely authentic for a 14-year old girl who only had a few years of education before dropping out to help her mother run the family business.
And what a story it is. After losing her mother, Melia’s is determined to do everything within her power to keep her brother, Earle, and her little sister, Janey, from being taken away and put into foster care.
That quest would be hard enough under the watchful eyes of the small-town decision-makers who have always viewed the Hoyle family as a “Pagan” clan living on the fringe. It soon becomes a matter of life and death because of big-fish-in-a-small-town deal-maker Harley Blevins, a sadistic extortionist who’s determined to seize control of the Hoyle family’s assets.
This is the heart of the story’s conflict – which comes down to a powerful, avaricious businessman squaring off against a valiant young woman who simply wants to keep her family and their legacy intact.
That conflict is a perfect driver of the suspense. From the beginning to the end, you’re rooting for Melia and her family and the surprising allies to come to their aid.
What will keep this story in my mind until my last days, however, are so many scenes that are easy to imagine in old-time photographs or movie reels. Or better yet, in some kind of time warp where the editors at Scribner’s Illustrated Classics found this manuscript, realized that some day it would also be a classic, and enlisted W.C. Wyeth to make the American Depression bloom on the page with images like these:
A rural burial in a hillside grave dug by Melia, topped with wildflowers picked by her little sister, Janey, and a cross whittled out of sticks by Earle.
A hobo tumbling off a passing flatbread truck loaded with coal.
Melia Hoyle staring into the barrel of a shotgun wielded by Harley Blevins as flames and smoke shoot into the sky.
Along the way there are many other memorable passages showing Melia’s intuitive judgment of character, her discovery of a lifetime love, and the power of redemption from some pretty surprising places.
If you look for this book at Barnes & Noble or your local library, you’ll probably find it in the Young Adult section. That’s good – because it’s the kind of story that shows young teens how amazing reading can be. Yet publishers are well-aware that adults are major fans of the YA genre – as proven by the popularity of books such as Thirteen Reasons Why, If I Stay and The Fault in Our Stars. I therefore wouldn’t be surprised to see hundreds of Amazon reviews of Lucky Strikes (which is as compelling as each of these works but with a so much humor and a wonderfully happy ending) by certified grown-ups a few months from now.
That’s because we love stories driven by compelling conflicts, brisk pacing and memorable characters. And because so many of us have experienced those eerie moments when we look into the eyes of people in photographs from a different time and place and wonder what kinds of stories they’d have to tell.
Like a photo, taken by Inabel’s Brownie camera, at a brief but memorable stop for gas and a postcard at Brenda’s Oasis in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains.
I won’t find it in my parents’ attic, but thanks to Lucky Strikes, I’ll always have it in the back of my mind.
by Joseph Finder
While Sweet Smell of Success is a widely heralded as a 1957 film noir, its plot description on your Netflix envelope won’t mention murder or blackmail or any other characteristics associated with the genre. In fact it sounds almost tame as a tale about people who use the power of the press to sully reputations.
Even so it turned out to be 100 percent nastier than some of the biggest shoot-em-ups of the era, with Burt Lancaster projecting the lethally hypnotic stillness of a hooded cobra striking at-will to destroy peoples’ lives, and Tony Curtis embodying every archetypal quality of the sleazy publicist beholden to him.
As someone who makes a living in the media business, I remember getting up at the end of the movie and wondering if some of the more difficult people in my industry might actually be evil, as opposed to just annoying.
Years later I imagined that prospect once again as I read Joseph Finder’s GUILTY MINDS. At the first line – “Lies are my business. They keep me employed” – I realized it was another Nick Heller thriller, Finder’s fifth story (counting a short story co-authored by Lee Child) centered by this cool character who bills himself as “a private spy” – someone who’s often hired by dangerous people to get them out of dangerous situations.
I’ve loved all of these books because Heller reminds me of a modern version of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. Heller, like Marlowe, makes his living (in Chandler’s words) “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.” It’s like Heller says – his job is to get mostly bad people out of trouble they create for themselves.
In GUILTY MINDS the trouble is tremendous for one of the nation’s most visible and influential officials, who’s about to be identified in Scandal Sheet magazine for a three-day dalliance with a high class prostitute.
With deft, swift storytelling, the first several chapters take Heller through engaging conversations with a high-profile friend of the nation’s most powerful politicians (a character who will seem instantly familiar to a lot of Washingtonians), a highly motivated investigative reporter, and the skillful co-workers and friends who help Heller show the liaisons never happened.
Or at least they can’t be proven. Thanks to years of experience with similarly smart operators, Heller has the nagging sense that people are still lying. What’s worse – at least in my impression of Heller as a character – is that he has a feeling he’s been manipulated. Although his business is rescuing people from lies they’ve told, he’s obsessed with uncovering the truth when he thinks people have lied to him.
That’s what drives the rest of this book. It’s also the reason why Nick Heller stories will always be bestsellers. He’s an ordinarily-looking guy with extraordinary life experiences. As a young adult of some means he turned his back on privilege and enlisted in the military and deployed to Afghanistan. Years later, he’s a highly intelligent investigator who employs women who he expects are smarter than he is. And although he counts on the problems of the rich and powerful to pay his bills, he doesn’t want to act like one of them.
In GUILTY MINDS Heller’s technological and investigative skills are more adept than ever – particularly with support from people who work for him and contacts he made in military life and beyond. This is fortunate since he’s soon clashing with violent thugs employed by a security firm hired by the nation’s most powerful individuals and organizations. He also takes a Jason Bourne-Jack Reacher approach to physical threats, aggressively confronting them instead of stepping away.
All of which leads to striking revelations about the power of media manipulation as a means to an end – in this case a conspiracy that shows the murderous measures the rich and powerful will take to protect their good names.
Most of us regular guys and gals are a lot alike. We go to work and take orders from someone above us five days a week. We’re anchored to our residences by the mortgages or rent we have to pay every month. We don’t often get into fights, and would be apt to turn the other way if we encountered a band of thugs on the sidewalk in front of us.
Most of us – at least the people I hang out with – are happy with our lives. But then there are those days when things seem a little off. The walls around us feel stifling. The bosses and clients we work for make us feel like drones. We step out of a bar at midnight, feeling lightheaded and thinking of nothing but sleep until we round a corner and see four big guys in ski masks, hands in the pockets of their jackets, walking purposefully toward us . . .
“That’d be one of those moments when you want to be Jack Reacher,” my dad tells me, with a chuckle at the other end of the phone. He retired from the Army as a Colonel about 20 years ago. He’s fiercely loyal to the military. If I ask him even now if there was ever a man or woman he worked for who was a first class jerk, he’ll just smile, take a sip of his Hendricks, and sigh.
He will, however, be happy to tell me why he loves the way Jack Reacher, the man at the center of Lee Child’s novels, responds to hubristic authority, and how much he loves fight scenes where Reacher takes on three, four or even more bad guys, felling every one with expert feints, head buts and in general by using their exertion and brawn against them. My dad will also tell you the rule he and I share when it comes to thrillers. If we’re not completely captivated 50 or so pages in, we’ll close the book and move on to another. Could be because we’re shallow. Or it could be because we’re spoiled after reading everything that Lee Child has ever written.
In these books we’re always spellbound from the first sentence to the last – always knowing Child is in complete control of the story and leading us along a carefully twisted path toward a stunning and surprising destination. In Jack Reacher Child has created a character like no one else we’ve read. From his 20s through his mid-30s Reacher was an MP in the Army, which is where he learned the basics of law enforcement and investigation. He grew up as the son of a French woman and a Marine Corps Captain, moving from base to base, which seems to have shaped his personality as a guy who travels the world alone.
Indeed, I still remember my mom calling me one day back in the 1990s to tell me about how they had discovered Reacher. “He rides across the country on trains and buses and stays in different motels every night,” she said. “All he carries is a money card and a toothbrush, and after every couple of days he just buys a new shirt and pants instead of washing what he has.”
At the time these seemed like nothing more than curious details about an interesting character. Two days later when I fell headlong into my first Reacher story I saw the symbolism. Reacher is a wanderer, forever driven to walk toward the horizon, a trait embedded in his DNA and fostered by the lifestyle of military kids accustomed to moving to new places every year or so. Most of the stories that take place in his post-military life begin with him in transit and stopping off for a few days in a new place where he’s immediately pulled into – or deliberately jumps into – a dangerous situation. Every scenario is unique. In Personal, he halts his self-directed travels for a detour to Paris to take part in a CIA investigation into a sniper who targeted the President of France. In MAKE ME, he gets off a train traveling through a vast stretch of Midwest farm country to visit a tiny town known as “Mother’s Rest” simply because he’s curious about the origin of its name.
That might sound odd if you haven’t read Reacher books, yet but it won’t if you have. He operates solely with his own compass, stopping in random places and usually on impulse or without much thought beyond simple curiosity. In most of the books I’ve read the trouble he immediately falls into is triggered by his innate compulsion to help someone who he feels is about to be a victim. In MAKE ME, he learns within a minute of stepping off the train in Mother’s Rest that there was another guy who was supposed to be on the same train. A private investigator who went to the town on an off-the-books job and who disappeared shortly after arrival.
In this book – like a lot of the Reacher stories – there’s a woman who he quickly becomes involved with. In every case they end up working together, with the women bringing unique insights and skills to the job in every case. I have to say that one of my favorite aspects of these books is that these women are never “love interests.” They’re strong-willed, physically fit women who match Reacher’s wits and intelligence all the way.
In MAKE ME, the woman who becomes Reacher’s partner is former FBI Agent Michelle Chang. She’s also a PI now, employed by the same organization as the missing guy. She came to Mother’s Rest looking for her colleague, and despite having the even-keel strength the Bureau seems to require she’s feeling inside-out with worry.
Unfortunately there’s a good reason for that. Something truly horrific has happened to the missing investigator. Something linked to a tale so dark that it borders at times on horror if you let your mind go fully into the places where Lee Child sends you with this story. With the exception of Gone Tomorrow, a story involving deceivingly normal-looking Taliban assassins with the most appalling capacity for evil, MAKE ME is the scariest Reacher story to date. It’s full of eerie insights about the impact of a barely fathomable level of depression among people who are both at the center and the outskirts of the action. It takes us into the Internet’s Dark Web underbelly. And it moves with relentless speed and intrigue that deepens with every chapter.
That’s mostly what you need to know if you read for enjoyment and like to experience a roller coaster-type sort of fear from time to time. If you write fiction there are a couple of other things you might appreciate. One is Child’s rare ability to write the same kind of sharp and minimal prose that makes you want to read Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain novels again and again. The other is his dialogue, which perpetuates intrigue with a snappy resonance that stays in your head.
Here, for example, are the first few lines of MAKE ME:
“Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy. It was like trying to wrestle a king-size mattress off a waterbed. So they buried him close to the house. Which made sense anyway. The harvest was still a month away, and a disturbance in a field would show up from the air. And they would use the air, for a guy like Keever. They would use search planes, and helicopters, and maybe even drones.”
And here’s a bit of conversation, capturing the way Reacher and Michelle Chang get to know each other, right after Reacher gets off the train in Mother’s Rest:
She came toward him with a distinctive burst of energy, two fast paces, eager, like she was pleased to see him. Her body language was all about relief.
Then it wasn’t. Then is was all about disappointment. She stopped dead, and she said, “Oh.”
She was Asian. But not petite. Five-nine, maybe, or even five-ten. No kind of a willowy waif. She was about forty, Reacher guessed, with black hair worn long, jeans and a T-shirt under a short cotton coat. She had lace-up shoes on her feet.
He said, “Good evening, ma’am.”
She was looking past his shoulder.
He said, “I’m the only passenger.”
She looked him in the eye.
He said, “No one else got out of the train. So I guess your friend isn’t coming.”
“My friend?” she said. A neutral kind of accent. Regular American. The kind he heard everywhere.
He said, “Why else would a person be here, except to meet the train? No point in coming otherwise. I guess normally there would be nothing to see at midnight.”
She didn’t answer.
He said, “Don’t tell me you’ve been waiting here since seven o’clock.”
“I didn’t know the train was late,” she said. “There’s no cell signal here. And no one from the railroad, to tell you anything. And I guess the Pony Express is out sick today.”
“He wasn’t in my car. Or the next two, either.”
“You don’t know what he looks like.”
“He’s a big guy,” Reacher said. “That’s why you jumped out when you saw me. You thought I was him. For a second, anyway. And there were no bug guys in my car. Or the next two.”
“When is the next train?”
“Seven in the morning.”
She said, “Who are you and why have you come here?”
“I’m just a guy passing through.”
“The train passed through. Not you. You got out.”
I love the sound of all of this – love the way the conversation evolves in the context of what’s happening in that bizarrely empty train depot in that lonely the night somewhere in a vast American prairie. Reacher and Chang are both wary of and drawn to each other, with friend-or-foe questions ticking through their minds every second. It’s a perfect stream of dialogue that characterizes everything that happens in the chapters to come, each one taking you further into a labyrinthian journey of depravity, hoping for a happy ending but justifiably worrying you won’t see it. Regardless of how you feel about what really happens, chances are you’ll whisper “wow” when you finish this latest Reacher novel, before going on the hunt for every single one you might have missed before.
# # #
Narratives are powerful. They’re the reason why Donald Trump, with his Make America Great Again slogan, will win a disturbingly large share of the popular vote in the presidential election. They’re the fuel that turbo-charged headlines about an exotic dancer who was supposedly raped by Duke University lacrosse team members in 2006 and Rolling Stone’s short-sighted rush to expose allegations of the same crime against University of Virginia fraternity brothers in 2014. They also have everything to do with the reasons politicians are so eager to line up alongside “victims of police brutality” every chance they get.
In these cases and so many more, the narratives don’t have to be true. They’re stories we want to read, and tell, because they confirm viewpoints we hold dear. In my day job I’ve been known to silently rage-on when I see media outlets perpetuating narratives that keep eyes on the screen and advertiser dollars rolling in even though the facts don’t bear them out. In my off hours as a writer and reader of fiction, I become a lot more centered when I’m immersed in stories with simple plot lines that ultimately reveal in truthful and believable terms how complicated real life usually is.
For these reasons and more I’ve been thinking a lot about THE WAYS OF THE DEAD, written by Washington Post reporter Neely Tucker in 2014, and THE FALL, by John Lescroart last year. I read THE WAYS OF THE DEAD shortly after it was published, and was instantly transported back to a period in my life about 20 years before. It was 1994. I was living in a picture-perfect Victorian surrounded by Section 8 housing in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. I often had to kindly negotiate my way past the drug dealers who would be sitting on my front stoop when I got home from 10-hour days on the job, and remind myself to feel sorry for the men and women who were losing their lives to crack addiction when they aired their grievances at the top of their lungs outside my windows in the middle of the night.
I was pretty much rooted to that world, stuck there by a mortgage way higher than the value of my home, and surrounded by the chaos emanating from people who were largely poor, uneducated and often pretty damn mean. It wasn’t all bad – in fact if I hadn’t lived there I never would have enjoyed the years I spent as a mentor to some amazing local kids, or gotten to know some sweet little old ladies who’d lived in the neighborhood since its heyday as D.C.s “Black Broadway.” But there were many times when I felt like I was living in a surreal world, particularly when I’d talk with friends who lived in pricey digs in the city’s leafy upper Northwest environs and who loved to preach about the need to legalize drugs, empty the prisons of people who had been convicted of selling them, and spend more money on welfare and “affordable housing” for the type of people who were making our lives miserable. Still, we managed well enough, right up until a certain November, when Marion Barry was re-elected as Mayor after serving six months in federal prison, an event that made me feel as if chaos was going to reign forever.
Looking back, I view the whole period in terms of how it forced me to try to understand the problems faced by people in poor neighborhoods while also recognizing the power of conflicting narratives. One narrative that was believed and perpetuated by many of my neighbors was that every problem stemmed from “the man” – a euphemism for white people with power and money. They also believed that “the power structure” didn’t care when poor black people were murdered. That narrative had a huge amount of influence because it absolved people of personal responsibility. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t true, or if I didn’t believe it was true, because every once in awhile reasonable people could see some truth in it. Then, as now, the newspapers reported on the deaths of men, women and teens virtually every day. Virtually every time, they were listed as residents of addresses in parts of the city that were known to be poor. There were so many murders that people became inured – they simply stopped paying attention. Yet then, as now, the murder of someone living in either a rich or poor neighborhood who wasn’t black automatically sparked headlines and a what felt like a far greater effort to bring the killer to justice.
It was an uncomfortable truth that I didn’t want to believe at the time. Yet I couldn’t help believing it years later when I read Tucker’s novel about Sarah Reese, a pretty white teenager and daughter of a judge who’s murdered in an alley behind an inner city corner store. Sully Carter, a journalist who knows all of the ins and outs of D.C.’s courts and law enforcement agencies, doesn’t believe the arrest of three black teenagers represents the whole truth of what happened. As a journalist whose livelihood depends compelling storytelling and on being first with the facts, he goes all-in on the investigative reporting that brings the real truth to light.
The story reflects themes from real-life murders on a D.C. street known as Princeton Place. As a reporter, Tucker covered the investigation of the murders and the trial of the serial killer who was responsible. He was inspired to write this novel by what happened in that case, and his knowledge of crime, investigations and the courts shines through every passage. As a result, the story is one of the most gripping murder mysteries I’ve ever read, with beautifully descriptive writing that brings pre-gentrified Washington, D.C. to life. Yet it also reinforces the narrative that white lives are more “important” than black lives in realistic ways. As I read it, I felt that everything that was happening was exactly as it would have been if Sarah Reese had been a real person.
The reality of that narrative makes me uncomfortable because of the sadness I feel over all of the children and teens who are murdered, but also because it gives credence to another narrative that I know isn’t true. Right now mainstream and left-leaning media outlets from coast to coast pulse with coverage of protests that perpetuate the lie that the biggest threat facing people of color is death by police. I would already be inclined to disbelieve this as someone who witnessed plenty of police interactions while living in that dangerous place all those years ago. As someone who’s spent a good bit of time with men and women who have one of the most dangerous and difficult jobs on the planet, I disagree with a sense of barely repressed rage every time I hear it now.
Unfortunately the truth doesn’t matter so much when it comes to this particular narrative because it has so much power, and because it’s a simple “solution” – blame law enforcement – for all of the complicated problems that lead to crime, violence, and interactions with police every day. As such, it plays well with people who feel – on a visceral, real-life level – that black victims of crime don’t get the same level of attention as those who are white.
That narrative is at the center of THE FALL. This is the latest in Lescroart’s line of mysteries about the lives of San Francisco lawyer Dismis Hardy and retired homicide detective Abe Glitsky. I discovered the series years ago with A Certain Justice, which I read while living in that same neighborhood. In that book, the murder of a white man by a black criminal spurs a horrific vengeful murder of an innocent black man, which triggers rioting that will be all too familiar for anyone who lived through the burning of East Los Angeles, Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. The driving force of that book is the desperate plight of an innocent man pegged as the killer by the media, who becomes hunted by the police. While he’s on the run, black and white politicians across the spectrum leverage the killings to solidify their power.
I read A Certain Justice with the same feeling I had reading Neely Tucker’s book – knowing this is exactly the way things would happen in real life. It’s a feeling I had once again when reading THE FALL. In this story the victim is an African-American teenager who’s at the edge of a promising life following a childhood in foster care. She’s murdered during a tough time for San Francisco’s law enforcement community, which is under fire by an ambitious politician fostering the narrative that police spend less efforts prosecuting killers of black people. While Dismis and Abe, who is of mixed race, and their colleagues disagree, they know they have to put everything they have into solving the murders for the sake of justice for the girl and politics as well.
Once again Lescroart presents a page-turning mystery with a mix of clues, misdirection and realistic lawyer drama. Abe and Dismis, who tends bar part-time at an historic San Francisco pub, are both interesting characters. They know they can’t trust the politicians who perpetuate those politics but they can always trust each other. Which is pretty much how the alliance forged years ago with A Certain Justice has endured to this day. Together and in partnership with many other good cops and attorneys, they’ve solved a wide variety of crimes while weathering the city’s racial politics along the way. In these novels they know politicians and the media will always exploit tragedies for their own gain. Yet they always strive to get to the truth even when it’s overshadowed by the narratives people really want to hear.
# # #
I subscribed to the print edition of Entertainment Weekly for years, and always flipped to the book reviews written by Gillian Flynn first. That’s one reason why her name was familiar to me long before the astounding success of Gone Girl. The other reason was my reaction to the two novels, SHARP OBJECTS and DARK PLACES, she wrote before it.
As a result, I like to pretend I’m part of a special club of people who discovered Flynn before the 15 million readers who kept Gone Girl on the New York Times Bestseller List for 130 weeks. Although SHARP OBJECTS and DARK PLACES were also bestsellers that earned critical acclaim, there weren’t a zillion people yakking about them in the years between 2006 and 2010. There were, however, millions who loved them for their gripping narratives and compellingly believable characters. These novels were also loved by a lot of writers, like me, who continuously searched for books that inspired us to aim higher in our own work.
These books hit that mark for me, for plenty of reasons. In both, I was immediately pulled into the story by a main character who spoke with a voice that commanded my attention. In SHARP OBJECTS, that character is Camille Preaker, a newspaper reporter who’s sent back to her home town to cover a story about a missing girl, which forces her to reconsider what she thinks about the death of her own sister years before. In DARK PLACES, the story revolves around Libby Day, who survived the massacre that killed her mother and sisters, and is now plagued by nightmares from the past and the inability to make meaningful connections to other people or hold down a job as her life marches on.
In both cases, Flynn broke a rule that agents and editors have hit me over the head with too many times. She created lead characters who aren’t very likable people. At least not in the beginning. In the beginning they’re cynical loners. Camille is a woman who isolates herself in a job and thinks every day about her stay in a psychological hospital and the years she cut away her own skin. And Libby is so desperate for money that she’s willing to exploit her family’s tragedy to get it.
Despite these qualities, both characters were people I wanted to get to know a little better, because I had a feeling I really would come to like them. In SHARP OBJECTS my connection to Camille was forged within the first chapter. In that scene she’s talking to her editor – a guy who knows her psychologically tortured history inside-out and accepts and appreciates her perhaps even more because of it. The editor – Frank Curry – is getting ready to ask her to do something that’s especially difficult. As she’s considering it, Camille muses:
“Frank Curry thinks I’m a soft touch. Might be because I’m a woman. Might be because I’m a soft touch.”
Ten years after reading that sentence for the first time, it still captures who I think Gillian Flynn really is. In interviews she’s talked about how she wasn’t “a nice girl” growing up. She was always different from other kids. But you never get the sense that didn’t care about people. Indeed, I don’t think she could ever have created such realistic characters if she didn’t have an empathetic nature. And as shown by the brief passage above, she certainly has a sense of humor.
Still, there’s that first sentence in DARK PLACES, that’s so indelibly creepy, spoken in the voice of a narrator who’s obviously trying to push you away:
“I have a meanness inside of me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders.”
That’s the voice of Libby Day, who’s a desperately unhappy person who doesn’t appear to care about anyone else. But once you learn what happened to her you certainly understand why. Like SHARP OBJECTS, DARK PLACES is built around a murder mystery. Libby’s lived for decades without speaking to her brother, Ben, who was sent away to prison for killing her mother and sisters, thanks to her testimony as a “witness.” As an adult, in collaboration with an odd group of citizen investigators who don’t believe Ben is guilty, Libby is forced to once again confront the possibility that the murders are linked to Satan worshipers while dealing with memories of poverty and paternal abandonment as a child.
Despite the early chapters when Libby appears to act as unpleasant as possible, you end up rooting for her by the end of the book. In between you’re treated to a story that moves quickly, making you feel as if you’ve slipped into a nightmarish fun house, with a weird girl at your side. You’re both blind in the darkness, and feeling your way through the corridors, breathless and terrified by what might jump out at you.
You’ll experience similar sensations in SHARP OBJECTS as Camille likewise confronts a series of mysteries about her sister’s death. In the process she’s forced to spend time with the mother she never got along with and a teenage mean girls-type of stepsister. Amid many questions about two missing girls, Camille is drawn into a whirlwind of bad memories about the experiences that left her body scarred by self-mutilation. Although she really is a bit more likable than Libby from DARK PLACES, and although the dark corridors you traverse with her aren’t quite as frightening, the surprise you encounter at the final turn will deepen your appreciation for Flynn’s expertly twisted storytelling along the way.
As a writer, I was encouraged by both of these books to tap my deepest fears and essentially stop worrying about what anyone thought of me as I shared them. Which made me feel a bit more confident as I listened to reactions to my first novel, Double Abduction, which was published in 2007 and likewise incorporated sharp objects and took readers into dark places. As a reader, I know I will always count on Gillian Flynn to tell stories that are captivating enough to stay in my mind years after I’ve read them to the end.
# # #
A couple of decades ago an editor at one of the big publishing houses talked with me about the proliferation of “woman-in-jeopardy” plots filling the drug store bookshelves and occasionally making their way onto bestseller lists. She was cranky about the lookalike plots incorporating stalking villains and “plucky” (her word, taken from innumerable reviews) women protagonists who typically started as victims before “turning the table” on the bad guys.
As she put it:
“There’s always this point – I can predict it exactly – where she suddenly ‘takes charge’ and begins to turn it all around . . .”
She wasn’t disparaging the authors or the readers. She was merely commenting on the enduring popularity of the formula pioneered (or at least made famous by) Mary Higgins Clark. Unfortunately, as someone who had to read umpteen books a week, she had gotten bored with the whole idea, even though she knew she could count on it when arguing for which books to acquire.
Years later, the drug store shelves are still full of these books. Yet there are a handful of writers (a handful who I know of, at least), who have taken what appears to be an ounce of inspiration in the formula and created a darker, richer and far more interesting way to tell these types of stories.
Lisa Gardner is at the very top of that list. All of the Gardner books I’ve read have been centered around a woman in danger. The women are always complicated in a “damaged” sort of way. And they’re always darkest in the Detective D.D. Warren series.
In The Neighbor, for example, Sandra Jones is a blond, pretty teacher who’s married to a nice, good-looking guy and who lives to dote on her young daughter. After encountering an intruder in her picture-perfect home she disappears, leaving her husband and daughter behind, and then reveals, in a series of first-chapters, the bizarre but believable connections between her tortured childhood, jaunts into the city for anonymous sex, and the strong possibility that her husband isn’t nice at all. As a narrator, she’s unreliable, untrustworthy, and completely engaging.
In Fear Nothing, the first person chapters of the woman-in-danger are narrated by Dr. Adeline Glen, the daughter of a serial killer and sister of his other child, who followed in his footsteps. Dr. Glen is a woman who studies pain management, and who cannot feel physical pain on her own. She’s a professional therapist who will tell you she’s dedicated her life to helping people. What she probably won’t tell you though, is why she cuts and peels away the skin of a traveling salesman as he drifts off to sleep after a brief, carefully-planned, sexual encounter.
In FIND HER, the woman-in-trouble brings that trouble on herself, masquerading as a would-be victim to hunt men who would do harm to other women. Her name is Flora Dane. She survived over 400 days in captivity, spending most of that time in a coffin-sized box. When she’s rescued she learns everything she can about self-defense, but is soon swept back into a horror show almost as bad as what she’s endured before.
This story has everything you want in a thriller – a high-stakes plot; a brisk pace without one wasted word; and characters who step off the page and hang around in your head. It also has one of my favorite detectives in D.D. Warren, the most likable alpha girl you’re apt to meet if you come into contact with the Boston P.D.
D.D. is as tough as the boys and even smarter than she needs to be on the job. Meaning, in FIND HER, she can look at a male bad-guy victim who’s been burned alive in a chemical fire (believe me, he had it coming) with nothing more than a grimace before expertly leading the investigation of his death. In the process she collaborates with a victim specialist and the FBI without the over-used who’s-on-who’s-turf? plot device, and dedicates every ounce of her ability to finding the missing woman even though she doesn’t really like or trust her. D.D. also lives for a greater reason than her professional calling – to make it home safe at every night to be with her husband and daughter.
In this book, like the others in the series, D.D. leads the effort to solve the crime with a keen curiosity about psychology and an ability to get along well with others while staying true to her get-it-done nature. After reading a lot of Lisa Gardner’s work, including the Acknowledgments sections at the end of her books, I have a special appreciation for how she created a character strong enough to stick with in this long series. She set out out long ago to learn everything she could about crime and the investigative process, a task that was undoubtedly made easier by her respect for the profession (she is, indeed, someone who would be well-liked by the police chiefs and sheriffs I meet in my day job). And she does a wonderful job of tapping what she’s learned to share interesting crime-scene knowledge amid the fast-moving narratives of her work.
In this scene, for example, where D.D. and her team go to the former site of a mental hospital, which is now a park where they’ve found buried bodies in the past, Gardner tells us:
“Laypeople generally gravitated toward the mound when digging for a body. Experienced pros like Boston’s ME department, however, knew better. The mound was formed from all the displaced dirt the killer had excavated from the grave – digging down, dumping shovelfuls of soil to the side. The depression, that was the grave. Where the subject had interred the body, then covered it with enough soil to make it relatively level. Never once considering the effects of putrefaction. That flesh and muscle would eventually decay, slide off the bones, melt into the very ground. That if blowflies found a way to lay eggs on the body before it was interred, this process would happen even faster.”
Gardner’s books are enriched by many crime scene descriptions like this, strengthening her narratives and never slowing them down. They’re all part of the world she’s created around D.D. Warren – and in the characters of her “Quincy” series revolving around FBI profilers. The Next Accident was the first book I read in the Quincy FBI series – and one I still think about as an example of what to strive for in writing thrillers. Gardner is now also finding ways for the characters in these two different series to collaborate with each other. In FIND HER, for example, D.D. has a phone conversation with Agent Kimberly Quincy, who provides some unique insights into the investigation around Flora’s disappearance. The interaction is completely believable, and shows why Agent Quincy is also worth spending time with once you’ve worked your way through D.D.’s adventures.
While I have absolutely no idea how Lisa Gardner turns out two and perhaps three novels every year, I’m glad she’s able to keep up the pace and ensure we’re rarely without the opportunity to be thrilled, and rewarded, by these darkly compelling stories.
# # #
Crazy Love You
by Lisa Unger
“Worldbuilding” is a term that typically describes the process of creating the richly detailed alternate realities we find in works ranging from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones to the Harry Potter series. These settings are overtly different places peopled by characters with odd and magical traits. You know from the beginning you’re in an imagined universe. It also happens to a different degree in works by John Farris, Richard Matheson, Stephen King and other thrillermeisters who take the richly detailed real world we know so well and integrate an extra dimension where the supernatural becomes completely believable.
In CRAZY LOVE YOU, Lisa Unger has built a world where characters from the pages of graphic novels may or may not be three dimensional flesh and blood people. It’s a place experienced by narrator Ian Rankin as he grapples with genetic mental illness juxtaposed with substance abuse and occasional promises of redemption that are like rays of sunlight breaking through storm clouds.
Unger’s powerful descriptions of what Ian “sees” depict a Gotham City-like New York where hulking men in monster masks push innocent women in front of subway trains and where detectives may or may not be bludgeoned to death moments before flames leap through apartment building windows. A place where Ian’s beloved childhood friend, “Priss,” lives without a fixed address and appears at points of her choosing to seduce and cajole Ian, reminding him all the while that she is a dominant force who will always make him bend to her will. Amid the sad memories of Ian’s childhood, Priss is a woodland waif with ephemeral qualities who avenges bullies with terrifying results. On the pages of Ian’s graphic novels she is a sexually dominating Amazon who becomes terrifying mostly because of Ian’s memories of what she did to those bullies during their childhoods.
The story would be successful enough if you simply came to believe all of the horrors Ian faces are in his mind. Yet it becomes extravagantly successful when the horrors begin to leap off the page – when you come to believe that the world Ian has created actually is the world in which he lives.The visuals Unger describes are so powerful, in fact, that one night, as I watched this amazing video of Disturbed’s rendition of The Sound of Silence, I imagined what it might be like to find myself planted right into the engine of Ian’s mind. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9Dg-g7t2l4
As a storyteller with a day job as a ghostwriter and as someone with tremendous respect for graphic and commercial artists and advertising and PR types, I have a special appreciation for something else Unger does in this novel. Through the power of her storytelling she made me want to learn more about graphic novels as an art form. Her narrator Ian references the fact that they’re sometimes viewed – disdainfully or not – as “comic books,” but she creates the sense that the visuals conjured by Ian could set him apart. I kept thinking, in fact, of illustrations from his novels being blown up into works of art, Ray Lichtenstein-style, and appearing on gallery walls. In other words, Unger made me believe that in a saner, happier world, Ian’s talent might have transcended the limits of the graphic novel genre.
All of which brings me to the most important thing that should be said about Lisa Unger’s work. She’s writing stories of suspense, which as a genre is often maligned by the literary set. She’s an undisputed master – well-loved by many other bestsellers – who tells stories that truly will make a six-hour plane ride feel like a wonderful journey elsewhere. But from the time I found her – perhaps six or seven years ago – I recognized that her writing rises to a higher level than some people might expect in this genre. In novels such as Beautiful Lies and Silver of Truth and In the Blood – which was the best thriller I read in 2015 – she completely eschews the shortcuts writers often use for descriptions on the fly, and always finds a more meaningful way to convey both physical appearances and the emotions of her characters.
Here, for example is a passage from early on in CRAZY LOVE YOU, after Ian meets Megan (“a good girl – the kind you take home to your parents”). In this first encounter, Ian is already imagining how she’d look on the page.
“Was she going to apologize? I wondered. If I were writing her, what would I have her do? I’d like to get that little wiggle in her eyebrows, that tightness of uncertainty around her eyes, the just-barely-there embarrassed smile. It’s all those little muscles under the skin; they dance in response to limbic impulses we can’t control. It’s their subtle shifting and moving that make expression.”
As it turns out Meg does find her way into the pages of Ian’s work as she becomes a part of his life. While there are plenty of wonderful moments when you can’t aptly tell the difference between what Ian is creating and experiencing, they all add up to surreal journey to a world where nightmares happen in daylight, and where belief is every bit as valid as the truth.
# # #
HIT AND RUN, by Doug Johnstone
A driving factor of successful storytelling is your true belief, as the writer, in the story you’re telling. Meaning, you often feel as if you’re reporting it as opposed to creating it, because there’s absolutely no doubt that it’s really happening. That belief is fostered as your characters break away from your carefully-crafted outline and start speaking for themselves, which makes you feel like you’re simply listening to them and just typing as fast as you can to get it all down. And it’s clinched in those final scenes when everything you imagined and believed comes together with a wham-pow ending that unequivocally assures you that these final lines were where you were headed all along.
That’s the way I felt when I got to the final draft of Fatal Option. Fanciful thoughts aside, I didn’t really believe it actually happened. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about how easily it could have happened. For years I’ve been mildly obsessed with drunk driving disasters involving the kind of good people we live and work with every day. The story was real enough to me because it’s happened thousands of time in real life.
But then it got a little weirder, when I found myself Googling my characters by name – wondering what it would be like to see an image pop up that eerily replicates the picture of the person that I had in my mind. Thanks to the power of the Internet it was only a matter of time before searching for terms like “man convicted of drunk driving and manslaughter” and “hit and run” led me to . . . well, a novel called HIT AND RUN.
It’s written by a guy named Doug Johnstone, from Scotland. It’s about a newspaper reporter, Billy Blackmore, who’s living a reckless life of partying fueled by pills stolen by his physician brother, Charlie. Billy, Charlie, and Billy’s girlfriend Zoe are heading home with narcotic filled bloodstreams after a night of partying when Billy, the driver, crests the rise of a hill and stares up at the moon instead of down at the road. There’s an “almighty jolt in the car and a monstrous crashing noise,” and when they stop they find they’ve killed a man.
This gripping opening scene kicks off a “one-lie-leads-to-another” kind of story that leads Billy into deeper and deeper trouble with every chapter. The narrative is completely captivating. You read it with dread but can’t turn away. In terms of the accident, you know Billy “brought it on himself” because of the drinking and drugs and driving, but it’s easy to understand why he chooses – with prodding from Charlie and Zoe – not to turn himself in when the victim is already beyond saving. Unlike Charlie and Zoe, he’s emotionally addled by guilt from the beginning, and unable to ignore his intuition that trying to get away with the crime will lead to more misfortune. He’s right, because the accident triggers wave after wave of violence, described with a driving pace and powerfully evocative writing leading up to a crisis of conscience that Johnstone deals with perfectly.
Which leads me to this true confession. I started reading HIT AND RUN because I was interested in the parallels between Johnstone’s lead character and mine. They’re both good guys who do a bad thing and try to get away with it. Some readers will think Johnstone’s good guy is less sympathetic than mine because he was doing party drugs when it happened, unlike my guy, who was just trying to rescue his daughter. But they’re both likable people worth spending a couple of hours with as you turn the pages.
Fortunately, or not, if you read both books you’ll see that HIT AND RUN is a better book when it comes to the perfection of the writing and the settings that come to life with Johnstone’s carefully rendered descriptions. This is actually a wonderful thing for me as a writer who lives to be inspired by other writers – someone who loves discovering writers who also remind me how awesome it is to be completely captivated by the kind of story you wish you could tell on your own. The kind of story that you keep on your bookshelf for those moments when you want to challenge yourself to work just a bit harder to find the perfect phrase or even the perfect twist.
That’s the way I felt as I read HIT AND RUN, knowing there are many different ways to tell similar stories, and acknowledging how wonderful it is to experience the work of, and learn from, a master of the genre.
THE KIND WORTH KILLING
By Peter Swanson
I went through a bad spell at my day job a few years ago. It began in March. I was working for a woman who had been a friend for over three years.She’d always had a reputation for creating discord that engendered a kind of mean-girl hatred around the office but I was a nice guy who’d never experienced it firsthand. That began to change when she called me into her office to talk about a client budget and kept me waiting while she gave one of her kids a lecture about homework over the phone. I’d heard this biting, “no-nonsense” tone before, because there had been so many of these conversations with children and stepchildren that had bled into the work day. Her eyes met mine and then narrowed as I stood at the door, giving me the feeling there was something kind of craziness going on behind them. Assuming the call had come in unexpectedly, I listened for about two seconds before stepping back out because I didn’t want to intrude.
I went back to my office and waited for her to call and apologize for delaying the meeting, and to let me know she was ready to see me. When that didn’t happen I sent her an email:
Let me know when you’re ready to meet about the budget.
Her response came a millisecond later:
Uh – 15 minutes ago. I’ve been waiting.
I frowned as I read it, wondering if I’d somehow misread the encounter – wondering if she had actually expected me to stand there like an underling and listen while she berated her son. I picked up my notebook and tried to ignore my off-centered feeling as I headed back into her office.
The crazy eye-narrowing thing happened again as I stepped through the door. In retrospect I remember two reactions. One was that I had somehow taken the place of the 14-year-old son who had behaved so egregiously. The second was that I was actually caught up in some really odd stuff going through her mind, and that the meeting request and the phone conversation and the delayed start were all carefully orchestrated to break my kneecaps even before I sat down across from her desk.
Both reactions were on target, because the next several months were filled with wide-awake nights that forced me to realize I was dealing with a sociopath who had a scheme to build up her prestige in the office by taking me down, and make-believe days when I actually thought I might be able to change her. Despite the gut feeling that virtually all of her life’s satisfaction came from sucking the life out of “weaker” beings, I did my best to stick to my belief that there’s good in every soul, if you can just find a way to bring it out.
If you’re rolling your own eyes now, you’re right. It didn’t happen. Every moment of projected goodwill on my part only pushed her further into her determination to instill pain that had nothing to do with the quality of the work and everything to do with her obsessive need to press her foot into my neck and pin me to the ground. It would have been bad enough if I hadn’t read Gone Girl during the middle of it. As you probably know, the book was about a sociopath who was attractive and charming and more evil than any villain you’re apt to remember. But it became even more terrifying as I came to realize I was completely outgunned when it came to the mind games, that made me feel like a blind-folded duck in a real-life shooting gallery virtually every day.
Which brings me to the point of this review . . . about brilliantly written books about brilliantly bad people who look and outwardly act like the normal people we encounter every day. Gone Girl”s Amy was that character. THE KIND WORTH KILLING has two of them. It’s a story about a guy who finds out his wife is a cheater and who gives in to a seductive ploy by a seductive woman who offers to kill her. The wife, Miranda, is shallow-bad – a sorority babe who marries for money and hatches a short-cut scheme to acquire her husband’s riches. She describes her plans in first-person narration without the slightest moment of conscience. Lily, the woman who plans to kill her, is more analytically bad, because she comes up with reasons to justify her crimes. My old boss didn’t succeed in her scheme. In fact years of badness brought her world down like a house of cards. But as you watch Lily’s mechanizations you’ll experience the kind of charisma that makes it feel like she’s going to get away with everything. Both of the men who are caught up in the story’s noirish turns are perfectly depicted as saps – a la William Hurt losing his mind to Kathleen Turner in the 1980s hit, Body Heat. Both of the women come off as 10 times smarter, and capable of more bad things than either guy could imagine.
Conventional wisdom (which Gillian Flynn and Peter Swanson probably heard from plenty of agents and publishers) is that “there always has to be one character to root for.” Fortunately, they both mostly ignored that mindset. Both of the unreliable narrators in Gone Girl are bad (although Amy’s a lot worse) . . . and Swanson waits until THE KIND WORTH KILLING is about two-thirds over before bringing in the good-guy-you-want-to-root-for (a cute detective who writes limericks). But as nearly 1,700 Amazon customer reviews testify, Swanson’s book is a whirlpool that sucks you in deeper and deeper, thanks to characters that are just too disturbingly true-to-life. It’s the best bad-character book I’ve read since Gone Girl – with a story that will encourage me to pay far more attention the next time I see that scarily shrewd narrowing of the eyes from someone I thought I knew so well.
# # #
by Jeffrey S. Stephens
Thriller writers can evoke different kinds of fear. There’s that boogeyman kind of fear you feel as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs heads down the stairs to the basement where Jame Gumb is waiting to cut away her skin. There’s the psychologically scary “this can’t be happening” fear you feel when Tessie from The Lottery opens the white slip with the black dot, a nightmarish moment that might forever change the way you view “normality” in your life. And then there’s the slow-burn fear you feel as you scroll through CNN headlines and realize that the terrorism that’s happening in the real world could suddenly hit right here and now.
That’s the kind of fear that crept up on me as I experienced the unfolding events in Jeffrey Stephens’ ROGUE MISSION, the latest thriller featuring CIA operative Jordan Sandor. As someone who spends a good bit of the work week in Washington, DC in a job that requires me to pay attention to politics, I’ll admit to having a certain mindset. In the hour or so before I head to my office I typically scan half a dozen headlines that have something to do with terrorism “somewhere else.” Many days I purposefully push the knowledge that it could/might/probably will happen in my beloved Nation’s Capital into the locked room at the back of my mind.
Fortunately, terrorism hasn’t happened in DC in the years since 911. Unfortunately, Jeffrey Stephens has stepped up my fear of how easily it could happen thanks to his clear and compelling understanding of geopolitics and the ease with which terrorists can infiltrate trusted financial, humanitarian and governmental sectors. Like other Jordan Sandor stories, the plot takes the CIA operative to places around the world, this time in what really is a “rogue mission” fostered by his ability to connect dots that no one else is able to see. From the opening scenes, which show how easy it could be to sneak explosives into a U.S. Courthouse (scenes I actually read while on jury duty!), you know something big and terrible is coming. You don’t learn what it is for certain until way later in the story, but that won’t stop your mind from wondering “is it this . . . ? Or this . . . ?”
Eventually I learned the scenario was actually more hateful than an attack on my city, which hopefully is fortified and surveilled well-enough to fend off the kind of terror ROGUE MISSION’s villains are plotting to unleash. That revelation showed an extra level of depravity among the bad guys who are the architects of the death and destruction, and spurred my disgust at those who are complicit either because of naively leftist mindsets and actions, or because they have something to gain from it.
Stephens’ ability to evoke the “oh God, this could really happen?” kind of fear is just one reason why this thriller will appeal to fans of Jack Du Brul, Brad Thor, Daniel Silva and the late Vince Flynn. A few other reasons include Jordan Sandor’s wise-cracking personality, adeptness with violence, and indisputable moral code. You’re going to laugh fairly often at his snarky, snappy comebacks to assertions of authority. You’re going to marvel at the way he handles his guns, knives and fists. But what you’ll admire most is his devout loyalty to his friends and his country as the driving force in everything he does. Simply put, he’s a lot like Jack Bauer with a sense of humor, or a more realistically imaginable Jack Reacher, and ultimately the kind of friend you’d love to have in real life.
For these reasons and more, ROGUE MISSION is one of the best books I’ve read in this genre. I wasn’t just captivated by it. I believed every word of it. So much so that when I reached the last page and looked from the living room of my DC apartment toward my straight-on view of the White House I actually had to check the lock on that door to that back room on my mind and tell myself: “It won’t happen here.”
That is, unless Jeffrey Stephens decides to write it that way in his next Jordan Sandor novel, which I will have no choice but to read.